Sheepscott Community Church June 27, 2010
2 Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14
Luke 9: 51-62
Keys to the Kingdom Within
There are two distinct parts to this morning’s gospel. In the first part, Jesus deals with tolerance, and in the second part he is dealing with the cost of discipleship. Let’s start with the second part where Jesus lays down three criteria for following him:
1) You won’t have guaranteed bed and board, so count the cost before you jump;
2) You’ll have to let those you leave behind remain in God’s care, while you go and proclaim the kingdom of God, however that translates into your life as you actually live it; and
3) Don’t look back over your shoulder; keep moving forward.
The actual wording of that third and last is “No one who puts his––or her––hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Any one of us who has farmed or gardened knows that you just don’t look backward when you’re plowing a furrow because it won’t be straight. It will angle off this way and that way, each time you turn to look over your shoulder. Jesus was responding to the man who said, “I will follow you Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” In response, Jesus didn’t say to him, “Follow me,” as he had to Matthew, Peter, James and John, either by that direct command or by sheer force of his charismatic personality. What Jesus in essence says to the man is, “I don’t want any lukewarm service. Are you with me or not?” and then he left the man to make his own decision.
Sounds like a hard word, doesn’t it? I mean how unreasonable is it to want to say goodbye to your family? It is a hard word at the time of that initial decision for God’s view of what our life is, when we actually turn over the keys to the kingdom of our selves to the one who knows how to turn those keys and truly unlock the power that is in our lives. What becomes possible when those keys change hands is unpredictable, but we do know, we can know that the one who turns the key in the lock made the lock and knows exactly how those tumblers work. We can only guess at the mechanism. Is it pride that keeps us from turning over the keys? That keeps us a lukewarm people, who do lip service to the life of God rather than a hot people who are on fire for God?
In the expression of the second criterion, Jesus says to the man, “Follow me,” and the man replies, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” It’s likely that the man’s father was not actually dying or even near death, but that the man was saying he would follow Jesus after the death of his father. Jesus’ response makes pretty clear his feelings on the matter: “Let the dead bury the dead, but you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In all matters of life, there comes a crucial moment of decision. If that moment is missed, it’s likely that the thing will never get done at all. Some people are so risk-averse that they are unable to make decisions. We can observe how life indeed passes such a person by because life is a series of decisions, some more important than others. Some people are terrified of making a mistake or being labeled a failure. What are humans except makers of mistakes––and occasional generators of success? I think the exhortation contained in this section of the gospel is to act at once when our hearts are stirred. Discernment is wise in many matters, including matters of the spirit. However, we all know when we are avoiding a decision, hiding behind that screen of being careful, being discerning, when we know it is indeed time. God is knocking at the door, asking us if we will to turn over the keys, so he can come and go as he will, and we are afraid of what that decision might mean. We all have heard that classic comment: Save me, Lord, but not yet.
To the first man Jesus encounters who says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus’ response is “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man”––and here he is speaking about himself––”has no place to lay his head.” Before you follow me, Jesus says, count the cost. If we’re going to build a house, if we’re going to maintain a church, the first thing we have to figure out is whether we can make the capital outlay to carry out the project. In matters of the spirit, we have to take a sincere and serious inventory of our personal stock and calculate our readiness. But from what I just talked about, we know that the call on our lives is real and may come only once, so we don’t want to drag our feet for too long on the discernment process, the careful calculations. We have to decide: Do we believe, are we willing to believe that there is a God trustworthy enough with the keys to our inner selves? Do we believe that that One really is or has been ever in our midst? Can we throw in our lot with those who profess to believe such things? Can we jump into that pool?
In fact that pool turns out to be an ocean in which we can immerse ourselves rather than simply walking the beach or wading at the edge. Pride plays a big part in the decision of whether or not to jump.I speak from my experience. A prevailing view about those who are so-called believers, those who are trying to live as Jesus lived, to employ his wisdom and love and spirit in their lives, is that they are benighted, unenlightened. It’s not the opinions and judgment of others that finally matter, however, but that of God. When we can get our pride in check and come to know that others’ opinions don’t matter, when we feel solid there, we’re home free.
We are all invited to make a decision for God in different ways at different levels at different stages of our lives. It is also true that the moment passes, so, discern, yes. Walk that beach for a while, yes, but don’t wait to make the decision until hell freezes over.
On Monday my grandson and I went to see the latest rendering of The Karate Kid, starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. Chan’s character, Mr. Han, who trains the young Jaden Smith’s character in Kung Fu, uses these two fingers like Churchill’s victory sign indicating his eyes and the child’s eyes to communicate FOCUS. FOCUS. We need to focus on our God, on Christ, our families, on our work, our relationships, our communities. When we focus, we commit. The two are inseparable, focus and commitment.
Let’s talk about the first reading, which is also about focus. When Elijah the prophet of Israel asked Elisha, his anointed successor, what he could do for him before he went away, Elisha asked for a double measure of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah acknowledged that Elisha had made a difficult request, but that if Elisha saw him––Elijah––taken from him, then that double measure of the spirit would be his. Otherwise, not. You can be sure that Elisha didn’t take his eyes off Elijah, did not look back over his shoulder to see if the guild prophets were watching all this. No, he kept looking straight forward at his master, the prophet Elijah, as we should look straight forward at the master, Jesus.
And we know from Cyndi’s reading the outcome of that careful watching, of that focus. He did indeed see Elijah go up in a fiery chariot pulled by flaming horses. Elisha tore apart his own clothes when Elijah went up, and then did he don the mantle that was a symbol of the prophet’s power. When he struck the waters of the Jordan with the mantle, they parted, as they had for Elijah, and he crossed over.
I did say I would deal with the first part of the gospel reading as well as the second, so let’s spend a few minutes with that. This section of the gospel of Luke, from which I read this morning, is composed of sayings, parables and incidents found only in Luke, and it is within the framework of the geographical theme of Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem.
In the gospel Jesus sends James and John ahead to a Samaritan town to get things ready for him to visit there, but he wasn’t offered hospitality because he was heading for Jerusalem. Recall that the Samaritans didn’t worship in Jerusalem but on Mount Gerazim in Samaria, which they believed was the true place to worship God, not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. When the hospitality was refused, James and John hurried back to Jesus and reported what had happened, and then no doubt with some childish glee asked if Jesus wanted them to call down fire from heaven to destroy the inhospitable village. The gospel says that Jesus turned and rebuked them and they went on to another village.
James and John wanted a big, explosive, attention-grabbing punishment for the Samaritan village so they can say, we told you so. And they like the association with such a powerful celebrity as well. Jesus’ response to the disciples is clear. He rebuked them and took them all to another village, where they apparently received hospitality. The story is included in the gospel not by chance, but as with all gospel stories, to teach a lesson. Here, it’s love of perceived enemies and tolerance of other ways of worshiping.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said this about tolerance: “I have no more right to object to a man for holding a different opinion from mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair... The thing I resolved to use every possible method of preventing was a narrowness of spirit, a party zeal...that miserable bigotry which makes many so unready to believe that there is any work of God but among ourselves.”
How to bring this home to us? Our free will is the key to the door that is at the bottom of our own inner stairway, which is God’s access to us. All our stairways look a little different from each other, and we need to be tolerant, even welcoming of those differences. On a larger scale, consider the mission statement of the Sheepscott Community Church, which by a recent unanimous decision of the Board now appears on the front of the weekly bulletin.
“The Sheepscott Community Church is a church that welcomes all. Its purpose is to provide for the spiritual and moral growth of our members. To whoever will come, the church opens wide its doors and offers all a free place to worship.”
That is a true statement about us as church. We come from many different religious and non-religious backgrounds and consequently have many different approaches to worship. A lot of different stairways. What we have in common is a desire to be open to what God has for us in the Word, in fellowship, in communion, and the opportunity for service that grows out of being church together. We all have a standing invitation to live in as Christlike a manner as we can, to turn the keys of our lives over to God––the One Jesus called Father––who can be trusted with them, to continue to gather with others who have similar goals of worshipful association, and hopefully grow from tolerance to love by keeping our eyes on Jesus, as the apostles did and as Elisha did on Elijah. This is possible because of the presence of God in our midst. Amen.